Review: Derren Brown – The System

In the UK: Friday 1st February, Channel 4, 9pm
In the US: Maybe SciFi since they seem to like him

Of late, Derren Brown has become less of a magician and more of a de-bunker. If you’ve read Tricks of the Mind, you’ll know he spends a good proportion of it debunking psychics, astrologers and others, while Derren Brown: Séance did more or less the same thing on a much larger scale, as did his stage show.

Which is nice. He’s becoming The Amazing Randi for a new generation of idiots viewers and probably a more effective one.

Now, he’s turned his attention to homeopathy et al. How did he try to point out the flaws in people’s thinking? By developing a system that he said would successfully predict the results of six horse races – then getting a poor single mum to bet all her money on the final race.

How can Derren Brown accurately predict the results of six horse races in a row? Well, he can’t. Obviously he can’t. Only the slightest bit of rational thought will show you that.

Which was the point of The System. Our Derren was trying to show how we use the evidence of our own experiences to exterminate all rational thought. Although homeopathy <insert long elaborate argument about homeopathy here that Ben Goldacre has already done better elsewhere>, many people are willing to believe in it if they try it and get better a couple of times. And then they’re willing to part with their cash, no matter what kind of a terrible penniless, debt-ridden state it will leave them in if it all goes wrong.

So our Derren sends anonymous horse-racing tips to a woman, saying that if she puts money on a race, she’ll be guaranteed to win. Time after time, he turns out to be right. After the fifth race, she’s convinced, even more so when he reveals himself as the source of the tips.

One catch: he wants a final, excellent result for the show that will see her winning lots and lots of money. So she borrows £1,000 from her dad and takes out a £3,000 loan from a loan company. Only when he’s placed the bet for her does he reveal his system.

There is no system. Derren merely sent random tips to 8,000 or so people. One-sixth of those won, so he then sent the winners tips for the next race. And so on. Our lucky lady is merely the random person who got the right tips for each race. To prove his point, Derren shows us the footage of all the other people he filmed – losing their races.

We then watch the final race, and our unlucky woman’s horse doesn’t win. She’s lost everything. Oops. Got the message yet homeopathy believers?

Probably not. For one thing, if Derren Brown told me to put money on a race while he was filming me, I’d probably do it since it’s unlikely anything too bad would come of it, since he’s a nice guy. Would single mum have bet the house without Derren being there? Maybe not.

For indeed Derren decided to put the money on another horse instead, which of course won, wiping out single mum’s debts forever. Whether he simply bet on all the horses, took a small hit, and did a bit of sleight of hand to give her the winning ticket (he always mixes in a bit of traditional magic and misdirection while doing his “mind control”); he picked a race with an obvious winner; or whether he was filming five other people on separate days, we don’t know. That’s magic.

But the point was to get us all thinking critically. Whether it will, since logical analysis and probability are notoriously difficult, mind-bending concepts, I don’t know; I still don’t think many people would have been able to map the logic of The System to everyday life. But it was entertaining, even if you knew that it would all work out at the end.

A bit of rational thought – or even watching an old episode of The Simpsons – would have told you what the secret of The System was and Derren’s coin-tossing demo (“look everyone, I predict ten heads in a row”, which he promptly does – after nine hours of filming, it’s revealed later) should have been a big clue. Certainly, I guessed within about 10 seconds of hearing the concept. But knowing the system and watching some poor woman almost literally bet the house on pretty much random chance was probably more nerve-wracking than not knowing it and putting your faith in Derren.

Let’s see where Derren decides to turn his sceptical eye next.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.